On Being a Cancer Survivor and Nurse
Last updated: March 2023
Someone once asked me what it was like to be an RN who has cancer. It made me think about the unique process of being both the patient and a care provider. I began to reflect on my feelings and recognized the following themes.
Shock and vulnerability
I was unprepared for how vulnerable I felt. How could this happen to me? For the first several months, I was very angry, did not want to talk about it, and was in a bad mood. God bless my husband for his support, as I would verbally snap for no reason. In some ways, being an RN allowed me access to more resources. However, it was also a liability, as I knew too much and have seen many complications.
I was very impatient and felt the urgent need for test results and initiation of therapy. This impatience prompted me to obtain my PET results from a colleague rather than wait for my oncologist. I promptly learned that this was inappropriate, as my oncologist was not happy. He was right, and I promised to always wait for his explanation. We reached a compromise. As a caring, sensitive physician, he has given me access to his personal phone number. Upon completion of a major diagnostic test, I text him and when possible, he calls me with the results.
Trying to maintain normalcy
I attempted to balance treatment, family, and professional commitments. I unsuccessfully tried to return to my teaching position. I can remember a colleague finding me exhausted in my office, barely able to stand. How would I ever teach a class or supervise students on the clinical unit? Initially, I was reluctant to share my diagnosis with colleagues. Ultimately, I needed to take a leave of absence. My most difficult challenge was to tell my loving son about my diagnosis. We both cried and came to an agreement that I would not keep secrets about my diagnosis. It was hard for me to see myself as a patient rather than a caregiver.
Experiencing caring behaviors
It is amazing how comforting cards, letters, texts, and calls can be when one is feeling sick and facing a major illness. It was so thoughtful when family or friends sent over food or offered to help in any way. Such caring behaviors made me smile.
Certainly, the fear of cancer recurrence and worrying about symptoms being more serious than I would have otherwise thought are part of my daily life as a cancer survivor. This can be exacerbated as I approach my annual CT exam. As an RN, I am always exploring the literature on the latest treatment for relapsed follicular lymphoma. I am trying to think about all the positives in my life to deal with this uncertainty.
Discovering other supportive resources
I have found great support and comfort in my faith during my illness. Prayers from friends and family have given me strength to deal with my cancer. Complementary therapies such as yoga, reflexology, and journaling have helped me relax and reduce anxiety.
Having cancer was a “wake-up” call for me, an opportunity for change, reflection, and a shift in priorities. I promised never to miss an opportunity to spend time with my granddaughter. I now make time to volunteer in our church and became a patient advocate for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. After several years as a survivor, I decided to retire from full-time teaching and continue part-time, which allows me more time to babysit and enjoy family vacations.
Deepened compassion for patients
Having cancer has heightened my sense of compassion for patients. I truly believe that speaking with patients about cancer provides support to the patient, as well as a sense of gratitude and satisfaction for me.
I now look at the healthcare system from a different perspective. I have become an advocate for changes in policies, protocols, and the healthcare environment.
Cancer survivors who are nurses experience the same fears and concerns as other patients and are challenged with the dual role of being both a patient and care provider.
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